Corona Lockdown, Day 40: Fear & Loathing in New England

How the epidemic pulverized our neighbourhood’s neighbourly spirit

Artillery Row

And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights. I remembered this meteorological detail from the story of Noah and the Flood this morning, which was not unlike the last 39 mornings in that, yet again, nothing at all seemed to be happening in our neighbourhood, and in exactly the same sequence as yesterday. Forty days into lockdown, the corona-dimm’d tide of tedium and paranoia shows little sign of ebbing here in Massachusetts. Quite the opposite, it seems.

It was people like us who brought Covid-19 to Boston: the collectors of air miles and connoisseurs of jetlag

Just as each day blurs into the last, so the news in Week Seven resembles that of Week One, when the novel coronavirus was still novel. Once again, Boston is a ‘hot spot’. It was people like us who brought Covid-19 to Boston: the collectors of air miles and connoisseurs of jetlag. As pilgrims and Crusaders brought the Black Death home to Europe, so the disease first appeared in our affluent western suburbs among the white-skinned and white-collar. A conference for Biogen, a prominent local biotech company, attracted managers from as far afield as China and Italy to a hotel conference room.

The handshakers and networkers are also cheek-kissers and nosepickers. The waiting and cleaning staff in our hotels are almost entirely of Hispanic and Middle Eastern origin. The new hotspot is in Chelsea, where as many as seven in ten of the population are Hispanic. These are the service workers who deliver our food and crew the Marie Celeste that is our municipal services. The disease arrived as a plague on the global rich but has now lodged among the global poor.

You can tell what kind of neighbourhood we live in by the fact that it has a list-serve at all. The typical traffic on the list-serve is requests for the contact details of handymen; links to the proceedings of psychoanalytic groups; memos from the organiser of the list-serve, who is known only half-jokingly as ‘The Mayor’; and the right-on rambles of an ageing radical who, regardless of the subject at hand, delights in accusing everyone else of racism. No one seems to mind him. One of the pleasures of bourgeois American life is a little mild auto-flagellation on matters racial.

The epidemic pulverized what little neighbourly spirit our neighbourhood possessed. It’s livelier now than it was when we moved in, but the New England tradition of permanent social distancing remains the norm. For weeks, the empty streets were emptier than usual. The only traffic was a convoy of delivery trucks which seemed to be endlessly circling the neighbourhood, dropping off food and Peleton cycles.

A cloud of despair settled over us in Week Three. Not because of the outbreaks in the local nursing homes, but because Whole Foods Market had stopped delivering. But then it emerged that the high-end deli around the corner was doing kerbside pick-up. It is now easier for us to obtain Italian cheese and French wine than American hotdogs. In the years before the epidemic, we had gradually seceded in taste and manners from the rest of American society. We live in two-parent nuclear families and we vacation in Europe. We eat Korean, Turkish, Mexican and Italian, but American only on national holidays.

This voluntary atomization might explain the outbreak of antinomian behaviour in Week 5. Or was it that our customary entitlement returned as the fear wore off? The New England spring, usually a slow and begrudging affair, began fast and early with sudden warmth and sunshine. Gangs of Guatemalan gardeners appeared with Zorro-style bandanas over their faces. By now the old people had accepted that the immunity conferred by a lifetime of donations to the Democratic Party did not cover the coronavirus, and had masked up. The young, however, refused. The teenage boy across the street cracked after five days in quarantine, and his girlfriend had to be shipped in. They wrestled under a blanket on the front lawn for the entertainment of the old folks who walked past, eyebrows raised over their masks.

It was around this time that masked strangers began to infiltrate the neighbourhood. We are in the only low-density neighbourhood in a city which, in the coastal manner, prides itself on its ‘diversity’ of ‘urban’ communities – under normal circumstances, that is. Now the strangers wander in to democratically exploit our sub-suburban surfeit of lawns and topiary. They assess our competitive gardening and the growing infestation of Teslas, which seem to have hatched from the initial mating pair of Priuses. They look through our windows when we are eating. They aren’t smiling.

We fear they are the advance guard of other masked strangers, no less attentive to our possessions and good fortune, this time coming in the night. There are rumours of nocturnal lurkers in our garages, of European cars having their tyres removed. Forty-five per cent of Americans have no savings. The economy is closed, but the food banks are open.

Some kind of magic was required to protect us from the have-nots. As in a fairy story, a child volunteered. To mark her locked-down birthday, much of the neighbourhood posted ‘stuffies’ –teddy bears – in their windows, with taxonomy, pet name and personal provenance described on the list-serve.

Usually the stuffies are at a ground-floor window, but some making the most of the observation potential of the attic windows. These furry sentinels are there to show we are good people who did the right thing as parents and would gladly buy our way out of this mess if we could. They are totems to ward off the plague and the poor, and the tide of fear and resentment that is seeping into our neighbourhood. Like Noah said, every ship floats on its own bottom.

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